In Thomas Hardy’s The Major of Casterbridge, Michael Henchard, the protagonist, commits a transgression that cannot be forgiven or forgotten. As a young laborer, in a moment of drunken defiance, Michael sells his wife and baby daughter to a sailor at a country fair. He hides his secret and eventually becomes a successful business owner and mayor of his adopted town. But he cannot escape the tragic destiny precipitated by his act.
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards is based on the same simple but brilliant premise: the personal and ripple effect of a long-kept and formidable secret.
In a moment of panic and fear the young Dr. David Henry delivers and turns over to the assisting nurse his daughter, a Down’s syndrome child and twin to his perfect son. He instructs the nurse to take the child to a nearby institution and tells his wife Norah, unconscious at the delivery, that their daughter died at birth. The nurse, however, keeps the child and leaves town the next day.
What follows is twenty-five years of grief, residual guilt, and evasion – intensified by Norah’s ongoing depression and inability to put to rest the daughter she never saw.
The ‘Memory Keeper’ is David himself as well as the name imprinted on the camera (a gift from Norah) that David increasingly relates to and hides behind. Images captured and secured on film come to replace the intimacy he sacrificed when he made a tragic and irreversible choice and photography becomes his obsession, a perfect metaphor for his escape from reality.
There are no unsympathetic characters in this novel of overwhelming guilt and loss. Life goes on but everyone suffers the consequences – everyone, that is, except the daughter, who is brought up with extraordinary love, care, and devotion.
I have two quibbles with the novel, which otherwise I found captivating. One is the introduction of a character two-thirds of the way into the novel who is not integral to the story and seems to exist only to hear David give voice to his secret.
My other quibble is with the abundance of minor errors (I read the Penguin Group hardcover edition), which indicates a surprisingly careless edit. It was a persistent and annoying distraction as I read this accomplished novel.